The Travel Dilemma – Published in Freeskier Magazine : Feb Issue 2019
WORDS Ian Fohrman
Travel is an inherent part of who we are as humans. It has been the catalyst for species and planet-altering events since the first Sapiens wandered past their home hunting grounds. Magellan remapped the globe. Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle created a foundation to trace our own genome and forever altered humanity’s understanding of our place among Earth’s species. For most of our human existence, travel has been the only means of spreading a culture, language or idea. The need to explore is rooted deep in each of us and we still feel its powerful push and pull, goading us to go a little further, to look around the next bend.
I was raised on the notion that travel was an unequivocal benefit, even an indispensable element, of a life well lived. Robinson Crusoe was my first real bedtime story and glorified tales of wanderers and seekers, from Kerouac to Tolkien, filled my adolescence. I learned that travel is how we understand each other and build empathy for other ways of living and of thinking. Travel is good. Travel is important. No questions, no ambivalence.
In 2018 airline travel accounted for two to four percent of total global contributors to anthropogenic climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ intergovernmental body that assesses and compiles work from thousands of scientists, that percentage is expected to grow up to 25 points by 2050. IPCC and nearly every other organization seriously looking at the science has warned that on our current track we’re facing a certain global catastrophe.
The average American flies only a couple thousand miles per year, and over half of Americans don’t fly at all. I used air travel to cover over 70,000 miles in 2018. How do I justify my oversized contribution of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as someone who’s soul and livelihood are tethered to powder days and healthy forests, not to mention my personal predilection for breathable air and potable water? Bike commuting, recycling, fancy light bulbs and the rest of my back-pat-inducing personal changes don’t offset my last trip to New Mexico, much less multiple trips to New Zealand in the last year. Our planet is in crisis. We’re to blame, and I’m a part of the problem. Do I still think travel is unequivocally good? Is travel even still worth it?
Unfortunately for quick answers, quitting travel overnight is not feasible for my profession. It’s also not a realistic expectation for a growing population of modern people with first-world occupations and grandparents across the country that want holiday hugs. I also, selfishly, want to feel morally confident the decisions that take me across the world and back again. So, I began looking for solutions.
Many airlines and third-party organizations offer carbon offset programs. The idea is that you, or an organization, calculate the amount of carbon your trip will release in the atmosphere and contribute money to a project that will counteract that negative impact. Most of the programs focus on renewable energy projects or forest conservation, but there are a number of other interesting projects, ones that promote cheap, clean stoves in Kenya or convert animal waste into clean energy via filtration systems called biogas digesters in Vietnam, for example. This concept is solid, as long as the money goes to the right projects. Though new, cleaner technology will ultimately be the solution, offsets seem to provide a good framework for doing less damage and they certainly help assuage my travel guilt. Still, knowing that on some level most of my travel is optional and the offsets aren’t perfect, I needed to further assess the cost vs. benefits of my actions.
LAST WEEK, I sat on sharp limestone rock in the mouth of a narrow cave in Viñales, Cuba, chatting with a small scene of local climbers. Huge magotes—steep, isolated humps of limestone— towered over us, carpeted in thick, unforgiving jungle. Below them, fields of tobacco and a Cuban root vegetable called malanga stretched into the plains. Sufficiently isolated from possible listening devices, chatty neighbors or government agents, the climbers, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, opened up and told us of the nearly insurmountable challenges posed by Cuba’s political and economic system. We learned about the real difficulty making ends meet for most Cubans, the impossibility of progressing or getting ahead and the very real threats of speaking against the system. We also learned the inspirational and scrappy stories of making a life and creating a passionate climbing culture and community in an unforgiving environment. They enlightened us to the amazing personal generosity and national community that their cultural and political condition engenders. We did our best to be a very small part of that beautiful fellowship and left our rope and some gear for the local climbers because all climbers in Cuba rely solely on donations for equipment. The world is complicated but we left Cuba with a visceral feeling of the country and far deeper understanding of a place that was otherwise a passing headline.
The act of replacing preconceived generalizations with real human faces, subtleties, inconstancies, gradients of thought; to see the on-the-ground reality of people’s lives and the effects of ideas otherwise only presented through scrolling and sound bites is the key to a more open, understanding and cosmopolitan world.
To an individual that has never ventured past their county line, “out there,” is made only of hearsay and headlines. Those that exist “out there” are inherently part of the “other” and easily reduced to stereotype, judgment and even something to be feared. The world according to 24-hour news cycles and endless comment feeds is a scary place. But, the world looks different, more friendly, open, inviting, when you venture out and get amongst it. Smiling faces tend to replace scary caricatures. New ideas replace unquestioned dogma. Your perspective blooms. Your options grow as your mind gets bigger.
The calculous of personal impact on global issues is always fraught, beguiled by long causal chains and endless confounding variables. It’s hard to know the right way to live in a world of ubiquitous information and endless options. Sometimes, after doing your homework, the only way to get on in the world is to trust that snap judgment rooted in over three hundred millennia of human experience, and step out the front door. Go seek the fluted alpine faces of Alaska or bottomless turns through stoic spirt forests of Japan. Go ski impossibly steep faces under the dramatic spires of Chamonix, experience the carving winds of the massive Andes mountains or just head west on your first U.S. road trip. But when you go, bring a spirit of curiosity and openness, be inquisitive about the place, it’s history, it’s people. Engage locals and other travelers. Step out of your comfort zone, push your boundaries and bring something back about how to see and how to be in the world.